Back to Programme

How people evaluate democracy: An assessment of the effects of economic performance and quality of democracy on satisfaction with democracy

Pablo Christmann (GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)

Keywords: Political behavior, participation and culture


Under what conditions are people content with democracy? Research on satisfaction with democracy (SWD) increasingly advocates explanations that stress the importance of economic outputs in shaping democratic evaluations. For example, recent studies into the decreasing levels of SWD in countries which had formally been under the European Stability Mechanism or under IMF Conditionality such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal or Spain have mainly attributed this change to the effects of the Great Recession, initiated in 2008.

A second explanation connects attitudes related to the functioning of the political system with SWD. Evidence for this relationship varies depending on whether the data is collected at the individual or national level. Research conducted at the individual-level finds that respondents tend to be more satisfied when they feel represented, perceive their representatives as accountable and responsive, and believe that their freedoms and rights are protected. On the other hand, research at the national level, analysing objective measures of the democratic process, return only insignificant or inconsistent results.

Notwithstanding the advances in the literature, there are several concerns regarding the capacity of existing studies to provide clarity about the relationships. For one, many studies draw their inferences only from cross-country comparisons, based on samples of relatively few, predominantly Western democracies. This makes it more difficult to disentangle the often highly collinear economic variables at the country level. This situation is aggravated by the usage of “democratization” measures and their inability to track differences in the quality of already established democracies. Finally, even if studies establish that countries with good economic or political records display high levels of SWD, this leads to the question of whether this means that people actually connect economic and political conditions to their survey responses.

This study contributes in four ways. Firstly, it employs improved measures of key variables. This includes using the Economic Performance Index (EPI) that combines information on unemployment, government budget deficit, GDP growth and inflation into a single composite index. Additionally, democratic performance is measured with a more fine grain measure tapping into the “quality of democracy”, the Democracy Barometer. Secondly, the study increases the temporal and geographical scope of the empirical analysis. Thirdly, it combines a cross-country comparison with a longitudinal panel analysis. Finally, it reconfirms the findings at the individual-level, testing also the effect of democratic and economic perceptions on SWD.

The first part of the analysis is conducted on a time-series cross-sectional (TSCS) panel dataset that includes information from 57 democracies between 1990 and 2014. It presents longitudinal evidence showing that changes in the democratic and especially in the economic performance of a country are capable of explaining major trends in SWD. It also shows that the effect of economic performance on SWD is strongest during times of prolonged economic crisis. The second part of the study reconfirms these findings at the individual level by employing survey data from the special module of the sixth round of the European Social Survey “Europeans’ understandings and evaluations of democracy”.